x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Lebanon focuses to lure Gulf Arabian visitors back this summer

Tourist arrivals last year touched 1.27 million, a decrease of 6.69 per cent compared to 2012, according to Lebanon’s tourism ministry.

Nada Sardouk, the director general at Lebanon’s tourism ministry, said that there has been a 36 per cent reduction of tourists since 2009. Jaime Puebla / The National
Nada Sardouk, the director general at Lebanon’s tourism ministry, said that there has been a 36 per cent reduction of tourists since 2009. Jaime Puebla / The National

The Arab Spring has virtually wiped out summer tourism from the Arabian Gulf in Lebanon, but the country is trying to reverse the trend this year.

Lebanon received a record 2 million tourists in 2009, but the numbers have been sliding ever since.

Visitor arrivals last year touched 1.27 million, a decrease of 6.69 per cent compared to 2012, according to Lebanon’s tourism ministry.

The number of Arab visitors declined by 12.22 per cent to 402,080 last year.

In March, hotels in Beirut reported the largest occupancy decrease, falling 25.1 per cent to 38.9 per cent. The market also reported the largest decrease in revenue per available room in the Middle East, falling 29.8 per cent to US$54.45, according to the research company STR Global.

“There has been a 36 per cent reduction of tourists since 2009,” said Nada Sardouk, the director general at Lebanon’s tourism ministry.

The World Travel and Tourism Council this year expects the country to attract 1.3 million international visitors.

Previously tourists from Jordan would spend weekends at Lebanon’s holiday spots, crossing overland through Syria, but that flow has dried up with the increasing violence taking place there. The numbers from Iran have also tapered off.

The portion of Gulf tourists has fallen the most. Before 2005, the year the former president Rafik Hariri was assassinated, Gulf tourists constituted 70 per cent of overall arrivals, Ms Sardouk said.

“We used to get half a million Gulf tourists during summertime,” she said.

They used to stay anywhere between 20 and 40 days during summer and about 10 days for other holidays.

“For the past two years, there were few summertime visits,” she said. “Now [Gulf tourists] form 20 to 30 per cent of the total numbers. They come for medical tourism and business tourism, but not for leisure. We don’t see families coming and staying.”

The hardest hit have been the mountain towns and villages, which rely on summer tourism for almost 80 per cent of their overall economy, with their ski resorts among other attractions.

The economy has shrunk by half in these places, according to Ms Sardouk.

The summer season runs from June through September.

She attributes much of the decline of Gulf tourists to the prevailing political situation in the region. But the focus of the ministry is to get them back.

“Lebanon used to be the second homeland for Gulf residents, and Lebanon is a part of the Arab world, and we need to feel a part of the Arab world.”

This year, the ministry is launching a campaign to promote the country as a summer destination to Gulf visitors through airline packages from Gulf countries with its national carrier, Middle East Airlines. It relaxed its visa policies two years ago for all nationalities with a residence or work visa with Gulf countries.

But it is going to be difficult. Supporters and opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in Lebanon have clashed in the past few weeks. In March, violence left 25 people dead.

“Security is our top priority,” Ms Sardouk said. “We are living there.”

ssahoo@thenational.ae

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